There's no use sugarcoating it: Sunday's loss to the New Orleans Saints damaged the Buccaneers' playoff hopes. Head Coach Lovie Smith had told his team it likely had to run the table in the last quarter of the season to make the postseason, and now that is no longer possible. The Bucs fell two games behind Seattle and Minnesota in the race for the two Wild Card spots.
WATCH: BUCS VS. SAINTS HIGHLIGHTS
However, the situation is not hopeless. In fact, it doesn't even qualify as "bleak" just yet. The simplest thing for Buccaneer fans to remember is that Tampa Bay can still get a Wild Card spot if they win their last three games and either Seattle or Minnesota lose twice in the next three weeks.
Let's take a look at the NFL's slate of games in Week 15 and determine where, as Buccaneer fans, are rooting interests should be. But first, the updated NFC playoff picture:
Clinched a first-round bye on Sunday
Clinched the NFC West, not yet a bye
- Green Bay
Still in play for first-round bye
Still holds tiebreaker edge over PHI, NYG
Beat the Vikings in Week 13
Still has rematch at Green Bay in Week 17
- Tampa Bay
Head-to-head tiebreaker over Atlanta & Philly
Hurt by 0-4 division, 4-6 conference records
Still has good shot at NFC East title
- N.Y. Giants
Plays Monday night, could be a problem with win
Philadelphia joined the tie that the Buccaneers and Falcons had just outside the playoff field but don't pose a significant threat to Tampa Bay in the long run. The Giants could also get to 6-7 and their head-to-head win against the Buccaneers would seem to be a bit of problem. However, if we're discussing a scenario with the Bucs finishing at 9-7, the Giants would have to win out to do the same and there's a strong chance that would make them the NFC East champs. They would have to beat Philadelphia to do so, knocking the Eagles out of the picture, and Washington finishes the season with road games at Philly and Dallas. It is highly likely that one team at the most comes out of the NFC East with a 9-7 record, and as division champs they would be irrelevant to the Bucs' Wild Card hopes.
The Buccaneers can no longer finish with a 9-3 record against conference record. They would now max out at 8-4 with a three-game run to end the season. However, if either Minnesota or Seattle loses two of their next three, they still would not be able to match the Buccaneers in that department. In essence, Tampa Bay's loss to the Saints doubled the number of losses the Bucs need from the Seahawks or Vikings, but otherwise didn't alter the Bucs' path to the postseason.
By the way, a scenario still exists that would put the Bucs in the playoffs at 8-8, but it is complicated and far-fetched. Part of the formula, for instance, includes Seattle losing their remaining three games. At this point, it's not worth diving too deep into that well.
Now for this week's relevant games, and who you should root for:
Atlanta at Jacksonville
There's not much mystery here. As we noted last week, if you see an NFC team playing against an AFC team, you know what to do. Nothing the Jaguars do can hurt the Buccaneers; in fact, more Jacksonville wins are a good thing. It is admittedly far down the list of potential tiebreakers and it rarely comes into play, but "strength of victory" is one of the possible things the Bucs would be judged on. Since Tampa Bay owns a win over the Jags, their strength of victory only gets better when Jacksonville prevails. For that reason, though, the game isn't particularly relevant to the Buccaneers' playoff picture, you can go ahead and ignore the AFC-NFC rule when the Jets play at Dallas this coming Saturday.
The verdict: Go Jaguars! (And Cowboys!)
Chicago at Minnesota
After the Buccaneers finish up in St. Louis on Thursday, hopefully with a victory, this is the most important game to monitor over the weekend. Given their recent results – Seattle has won four in a row in convincing fashion while the Vikings have dropped three of their last four – and the remaining schedule, Minnesota seems more likely to fall to where the Bucs can catch them. Seattle gets home games against 3-10 Cleveland and 5-8 St. Louis before heading to Arizona in Week 17. Minnesota also gets two home games before a Week 17 trip to Lambeau Field, but they're against the somewhat friskier duo of Chicago and the New York Giants.
The most likely loss of those final three Viking games is in Green Bay in the regular season finale. That's no guarantee, of course, but if we're projecting options for a 9-7 Buccaneer teams, we have to look for help where we might find it. If the Packers can provide that help, the Bucs would need only one Viking loss against either the Bears or the Giants. Might as well get it out of the way as soon as possible.
Oh, and don't worry about the Bears creeping up on the Buccaneers from behind. Tampa Bay plays host to Chicago in Week 16, so our 9-7 scenario already includes the Bucs pushing the Bears back down.
The verdict: Go Bears!
Carolina at New York Giants
This one is exceedingly tricky. On one hand, the Giants would be a Wild Card problem for the Buccaneers if they also get to 9-7 but don't win the NFC East. And since we'll already be rooting for New York to win in Minnesota in Week 16, we're in danger of putting them too firmly in the Bucs' way. However, as mentioned above, it is far more likely that a 9-7 Giants team would also be a division winner, which would remove the Wild Card tiebreaker issue.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have already clinched a first-round bye and are nearly a lock to get the first-overall seed in the NFC field, and thus home field advantage throughout. They also have a shot at the third undefeated regular season in the Super Bowl era, which has to be a significant piece of motivation no matter how much the Carolina players and coaches try to downplay it.
The issue, as we mentioned last week, is one of motivation for the Panthers in Week 17, when they welcome the Buccaneers to Charlotte. Tampa Bay would like for them to have as little of that as possible, which means we want the Panthers to clinch the top seed but also lose their perfect record in the next two weeks. Since their Week 16 game is at Atlanta, a team they just demolished on Sunday, the more likely pre-Week 17 loss would come for the Giants. So let's root against the Panthers this week and then hope they clinch the top spot with another win over the Falcons.
The verdict: Go Giants!
Arizona at Philadelphia
This one is also a little tricky. The obvious choice for the Buccaneers would be to root for the Cardinals to remove Philadelphia from the picture. Even with their tiebreaker edge over the Eagles, the Buccaneers would rather see any potential 9-7 team fall by the wayside.
However, an Arizona loss would put the Panthers on the brink of that first-overall seed we discussed above. At this point, that's probably a more important turn of events for the Buccaneers, since the Giants and Eagles play in Week 17.
The verdict: Go Eagles! (But don't get too upset if the Cardinals win.)
Buffalo at Washington
Washington only busts into the Buccaneers' 9-7 tiebreaker party if they win out, too, and if they do that they will be the NFC East champs. There is the small possibility, however, of the Redskins and Giants both finishing 9-7, which would potentially be bad news for Tampa Bay. So let's just take care of that issue right here and apply the AFC vs. NFC rule.
The verdict: Go Bills!
Cleveland at Seattle
Even if we believe that Minnesota is the more likely of the two 8-5 teams to lose twice in the next three weeks, we might as well hope for all of the Buccaneers' options to remain open. There is no value in a Browns loss to the Buccaneers, so this one is easy. Perhaps Johnny Manziel can come up big and pull off the huge upset.
The verdict: Go Johnny Football!
Detroit at New Orleans (Monday night)
This one isn't likely to matter to the Buccaneers. However, that far-fetched scenario mentioned above, with the Buccaneers getting a Wild Card spot at 8-8, also requires at least one loss by the Saints in the next three weeks. Unrelatedly, Tampa Bay would also like to hang on to second place in the division as a matter of pride, so we might as well root against the Saints. This is the Monday Night Football matchup, so you want to have some kind of rooting interest to make it more exciting.
The verdict: Go Lions!